Palestinian Winemakers, Forever Connected to the Land

Barrels aging at Cremisan Winery

Palestinian winemakers are deeply connected to their land and its rich agricultural past. There is a long history of indigenous grape varieties in the area, and with constant learning and experimenting, winemakers are keeping them alive. Archaeological evidence of winemaking equipment and, knowledge of wine export to Egypt date back to ancient times. And Palestine is a country where old traditions are cherished and respected.

There are Palestinian-owned wineries in Palestine and Israel, each with a story of farming and making great wine. As a first-generation Palestinian in the U.S., I feel it is important that they are recognized for their genuine passion for winemaking and love of their country. I wish for their wine to be more available here in the states so people can taste the work from this extraordinary place. Even more so, I hope to visit their vineyards in Palestine someday and see where my father lived as a child.

Cremisan Winery

Grounds outside Cremisan Winery

Cremisan Winery, on Palestine’s West Bank, was founded in 1885 by an Italian priest. Originally, wine was made for the churches around Bethlehem and Jerusalem. As winemaking evolved, they make quality wine from indigenous and international varieties for retail. The four native grapes they concentrate on are Baladi, a red variety, Hamdani, Jandali, and Dabouki, which are whites. Cabernet Sauvignon is also made as one of their reserve wines.   

Fadi Batarseh, Winemaker and Executive Director of Cremisan Winery, affirms they are the first winery in Palestine and, the first to make wine from Palestinian local grapes. In 2008 the winery released its first Palestinian wine made from indigenous grapes. In 2013 at a wine competition in London, their 2011 Star of Bethlehem white blend of Hamdani and Jandali earned the highest score by Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson. The winery has become a notable tourist destination and a historical landmark. 

Still run by the Salesian community, Cremisan provides educational, socio-recreational, and spiritual advancement activities and opportunities for disadvantaged children in the Middle East.

Taybeh Winery

Taybeh Winery, the vineyard in Birzeit
Aging wine in barrels at Taybeh Winery

After many years in the brewery business, the Khoury family launched the first boutique winery in Palestine in 2012. Owners, the Khoury brothers Nadim and David, and Nadim’s son, Caanan Khoury, take pride in making wine made from indigenous and international varieties in the picturesque village of Taybeh on the west bank.

With an engineering degree from Harvard University, Caanan then completed the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis, where he also studied enology. From there, he earned his MBA from Stanford University while initiating the different phases of the winery with his family in Palestine. Along with his accomplishments, he brings his heart to his country with hopes of continued success in the wine business.

Taybeh is 900 meters above sea level, and the vines grow at high elevations on hillsides, where they enjoy diurnal shifts in temperature and red rocky volcanic soils. Trellising varies per grape variety as the region has different micro-climates. Although the area is mostly arid, Caanan shares that there is surprisingly decent rain.

At least 21 indigenous varieties are in the area, and Taybeh has been experimenting with several. These grapes are like identity markers; it is important to them to educate people about their history and profiles. Since 2014, they have been making wine from Zeini, a white light aromatic variety with lively acidity, and Bitouni, a delicate red grape. Caanan pleasingly expressed that people seem to really like them, and hotels and restaurants are beginning to request them. Taybeh primarily sells locally to Palestinian cities as many product export challenges remain.

Ashkar Winery

Grounds at Ashkar Winery
Founder/Owner Ni’mi Ashkar

Ashkar Winery is owned and operated by founder Nemi (Ni’mi) Ashkar, his wife Amira, and their son, Amir. Although the winery was established in 2010, the family has a longer winemaking tradition. The fruit comes from three different vineyards, and all the viticulture is done carefully under their supervision. While Palestinian-owned, the winery and vineyards are in Galilee, now part of Israel; the land is state-owned and run by Jewish-Israeli farmers.

One of their vineyards, in Upper Galilee, is near two ruins surrounding the Iqrit village area, the beloved land that belonged to Palestine before 1948. Here they grow world-class Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which they label reserve or grand reserve for their exceptional quality in specific years.

The other vineyard in Upper Galilee sits at the foothills of Mount Meron. Amir explains this location is ideally suited for Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, which thrive in the moderate, lengthy growing season with warm summer days tempered by the gentle breezes of the Golan Mountains. These breezes allow for fresh, vibrant acidity in the grapes. The southernmost vineyard in Lower Galilee has iron-rich Terra Rossa soil and an abundance of sunshine, yielding beautiful Shiraz and Petit Verdot varieties.

They primarily grow French varieties. However, they believe that the grapes acquire characteristics of their land, giving them a distinct expression of place. All whites are unoaked and made in a dry fresh style. Reds are also dry and made as single varietals as well as blends. Ashkar sells to many restaurants and boutique wine shops both locally and abroad. However, following COVID-19, sales haven’t been renewed in the United States.

Philokalia Winery

Philokalia Winery bottles ©Sari Khoury
Vineyard land at Philokalia ©Sari Khoury

Established in 2015, Philokalia makes hand-crafted wine made from indigenous varieties. Located in Bethlehem and Bethlehem Governate, the vineyards sit along its southwestern hills 900 above sea level. The bush vines enjoy clay and limestone soils that are not irrigated and sit on metal posts to reduce humidity within the vine. Founder/Owner and winemaker Sari Khoury and his partner Vicki Sahagian work with non-grafted, non-irrigated vines 60-110 years old, with farmers, and on their own plot.

Sari credits Palestinian artist and wine connoisseur Nasser Soumi and Pascal Frissant, a winemaker from the Loire Valley in France, for their research and influence. Their passion and understanding of the history of wine in Palestine helped guide him and encouraged him to learn by doing and to trust in himself as a winemaker of this land.

The winery is built on constant learning of historical and contemporary winemaking methods and research of ancient farming techniques. With purity in mind, the wine contains little sulfur or additives and is aged in clay jars instead of oak barrels. Sari believes clay jars complement the local cuisine and expression of terroir and aspires to nurture that relationship. Philokalia sells wine in Palestine, Israel, and the U.S. through Terra Sancta Trading in Florida.

-Darla Salem Hoffmann

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s